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Staffing by the numbers

News Analysis
Jul 19, 20045 mins
IT LeadershipNetworking

Experts share insights into how many people it takes to run an IT operation.

As the worst of the downturn is over, budgets are beginning to thaw for IT staffing. As you make the case for increasing head count, how many IT professionals do you need to run your company, and in which IT disciplines should your team members be experts? It helps to have a handle on how your peers are staffing their organizations.

According to Meta Group’s 2002 study – its most recent research on this topic – the average U.S. firm budgets 3.53% of revenue to IT, and the average number of employees supported by one IT staff member is 120.3. While these numbers are useful indicators, Meta and other recruitment experts say the actual staffing levels of an organization depend on the company culture and its industry.

In the financial industry, for example, one in five employees – or 20% of all staff – could be in IT, says John Piot, executive vice president at Impact Innovation Group, a staffing firm in Atlanta. “Financial companies have mission-critical systems that require [a mix of] maintenance and project staff,” he says. Meta breaks down the finance field into financial services, insurance and banking, and reports that 13.23%, 9.36% and 7% of the workforce in those respective sectors are IT employees.

In contrast, IT employees in the transportation industry make up just 1.89% of their organizations, according to Meta. Piot attributes the reason for the small IT presence to the higher concentration of non-IT workers, such as an airline’s flight crew members and baggage handlers.

Industry sector also plays a role in determining the ratio of IT support staff to company employees. For financial services, the ratio could be 1-to-5, because of the complexity and mission-critical nature of the systems that run the business; while the ratio in the transportation industry could be 1-to-50, Meta says.

Some companies calculate the number of systems administrators they need according to the number of servers they have. Typically, there is one systems administrator for every seven to 15 servers, Piot says. You can get away with a higher ratio of servers per systems administrator if your server infrastructure is fairly consistent and standardized. “But if you have a mix of Windows and Unix servers and different operating systems, the ratio is lower. The more complexity is added to the environment, the more people you require,” Piot says.

On the network side of the house, the ratio of communication devices per IT staffer could be as high as 45 to 50 devices to one network administrator. “Network devices are easier to maintain because there are fewer moving parts,” Piot notes. However, the ratio can increase 25% if multi-vendor devices are used, requiring more people with knowledge of different systems.

Unique variables

Company culture and business goals also play a role in determining an organization’s staffing levels. For example, how soon do you want help desk staff to answer calls – within one ring? What are your service-level agreements to your users? Do most of your employees work out in the field or telecommute? The more remote your workers are, and the higher your service levels, the more IT staffers you need to field help desk calls compared with an IT operation that serves employees who are all located in the same building, says Mark Lutchen, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“What’s the philosophy of your IT organization? If it never uses packaged applications and builds its own software and maintains it, and if it doesn’t standardize on equipment, then you need more people on board to do maintenance on different platforms – that’s a high-cost scenario,” Lutchen says.

But staffing your IT operations is not just about knowing how many workers you need and the technical skills they should have to serve your organization at that point in time; you need to consider where your business wants to be in the future and whether your staff can make the transition. Does your company offer career paths for each individual that reflects where the business is headed? Are your IT professionals knowledgeable about your business environment and able to communicate with users?

Hiring contractors is also a useful way to augment existing staff numbers, particularly as companies begin to reopen projects that were closed during the economic downturn. Dru Neikirk, a partner at IT staffing firm MRE Consulting in Houston, is seeing demand for contractors to take on project management, change management, configuration management and systems design. “It takes time to train up staff so you hire specialists at peak demands,” he says.

Piot of Impact Innovation advocates splitting your IT team between 75% permanent and 25% contract staff. “As projects go in and out, you don’t want 100% of your staff to be permanent and have to start laying people off if your big project is canceled,” he says.

Workload by IT roles
IT roleWorkload
IT manager and project leader One manager/supervisor for eight staff positions.
Network analystOne analyst handles $886,000 in network monitoring devices, systems and interfaces (or up to $2.5 million, if voice telecom is included).
Intranet/Internet specialist 35 specialists to support Web sites.
E-mail administratorOne administrator for every 1,400 mail users.
Help desk staffOne analyst to handle 600 transactions per month (average contact handle time is 12 minutes).

Use these figures as a starting point for determining the IT help you need.